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Capitol Report: March 5, 2014

Capitol ReportBy Della B. Cronin

White House number crunchers are very busy these days, with the FY 2015 budget request about to be released. This year, the Obama administration’s proposal on how to fund all the federal agencies and programs will be delivered in two installments. First, on March 4, the “big picture” is expected—the outlines of broad priorities and new initiatives at the agencies. Then, on March 11, the mathematicians will get really excited when all the so-called justifications will be released. Thousands of pages of numbers related to the big ideas will make for long nights for federal budget watchers that week.

President Obama has already said that the request will build on the themes of his State of the Union address and will show “how we can invest in the things we need to grow our economy, create jobs, increase skills training, and improve education—without adding to our deficit.” Although the request will adhere to the spending levels agreed on in the bipartisan budget agreement struck in December, it will include new ideas and propose to close what the White House considers to be “unfair tax loopholes” and reform spending programs. These reforms will support a number of ideas that are part of the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative, including “education proposals that help us achieve the president’s vision for universal pre-K and improved Head Start options for all families.”

A recent meeting between STEM education advocates and White House officials included a discussion about what the president’s plan might mean for STEM education. It seems that this year’s budget request will once again include a new plan for federal investments in STEM education, but this iteration is expected to be a little less aggressive and more palatable to the community. Apparently Congressional rejection of previous proposals and community outrage about its lack of input have caused White House officials to rethink their approach to this admittedly large and complicated issue. In addition, after repeated attempts to eliminate or totally retool the Department of Education Math and Science Partnership program, the administration showed signs at the meeting that it might be beginning to understand how important the program is to states and math and science educators. Or course, the administration’s challenge to further its agenda with limited resources might conflict with that understanding. The details of the budget plan will reveal which priority has won out.

On Capitol Hill, a hearing recently took place on teacher preparation and quality. “Exploring Efforts to Strengthen the Teaching Profession,” was the title of the hearing, which featured testimony from state officials struggling to prepare teachers and hold them—and colleges of education—accountable for teaching and learning. Innovators in this endeavor offered testimony as well. Witnesses and members of the Committee on Education and the Workforce alike criticized reporting requirements and federal mandates. In addition, new ideas on how to prepare effective teachers and exemplary programs that feature collaboration among postsecondary institutions and state and local education leaders were celebrated. The sharing of expertise could help lawmakers as they continue to struggle with how to hold teachers and school leaders accountable for teaching and learning, and as they work to determine how to improve federal programs that invest in teacher preparation programs.

A number of education issues are currently under discussion on Capitol Hill—both at hearings and in private meetings. Senate lawmakers hoping to develop a proposal to improve the Perkins career and technical education programs are examining these programs. The Workforce Investment Act is taking up a lot of time, and the House and Senate continue to hold hearings on how to improve the Higher Education Act. In addition, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee could debate the America COMPETEs Act this month. Even though Congress has a reputation for not doing much, a lot is surely going on.

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC.

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